The Theatreguide.London Review
Drury Lane Theatre 2017
Tip-top – or, I should say, Tap-top – this Broadway revival is at its best when it is filled with dozens of tap dancers – which is, happily, a good deal of the time.
Based on a 1933 movie, it is the ultimate backstage musical, the one about the fledgeling chorus girl who has to replace the wounded star at the last minute.
It was made into a stage musical in 1980 with a revised book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble and with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin drawn not only from the film but from just about every other Warner Brothers musical of the 1930s, from Dames through Gold Diggers of 1937.
And, most importantly, with the energetic direction and choreography of Gower Champion (here supplemented by Randy Skinner).
The score features one showstopper after another – 'You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me', 'Dames', 'We're In The Money', 'Lullaby of Broadway' and on and on – and current director Mark Bramble has wisely absorbed Gower Champion's insight that anytime everyone onstage isn't tapping there had better be a good reason.
Signature Champion effects like opening the show by raising the curtain just enough for us to glimpse what seem like a million feet dancing, the Busby Berkeley salute employing a large tilted mirror to turn the dancers lying on the floor into a kaleidoscope of arms and legs, and the irresistible triumphant strut of the title number represent the absolute best of what Broadway is best at, and 42nd Street offers Broadway pizazz at its most razzle-dazzly.
(I'm not certain whether the literal tipping of a hat to A Chorus Line's Michael Bennett in 'Dames' is by Champion or Skinner, but I do remember the clever visual echo of Champion's own Bye Bye Birdie in 'Sunny Side'.)
Star billing in this revival goes to Sheena Easton as the egotistical diva we can't wait to see break her ankle. Her role built up from the film (and, I think, from the 1980 version), Easton gets most of the more dramatic songs and does them full justice, from a heartfelt 'I Only Have Eyes For You' through a Piaf-ish 'Boulevard Of Broken Dreams' to a lightly swinging 'Quarter To Nine.'
Tom Lister gets second credit as the dedicated and despotic director, the one who gets to say 'You're going out there an unknown but you've got to come back a star'.
While never eclipsing memories of the great Jerry Orbach 37 years ago Lister fills his shoes nicely, playing the meanie convincingly while also making us believe his love of the art form ('the two greatest words in the English language – Musical Comedy!') He leads the company in the Gower Champion strut of the title number and then earns and fully delivers on the climactic solo reprise of '42nd Street'.
You have to drop down several type sizes in the credits to find Clare Halse in the central role of the beginner who winds up the star, but she's a lot more prominent and visible onstage.
Halse sings and acts adequately and twinkles incessantly. But it is when she puts on the tap shoes and begins to dance that she becomes the show's real star. With seemingly inexhaustible energy Halse dances as well as, and frequently better than, the chorus – and I mean that as the highest praise, since everyone knows that the backup gypsies are almost always better than the stars.
If Clare Halse has a limitation, it lies in her perfection. She resembles dancing star of 1940s movies Eleanor Powell in being technically brilliant but sexless and just slightly robotic.
It's big, it's brassy, it occasionally threatens to overwhelm its small story in elaborate staging,and just occasionally you get a whiff of 'Uh oh, things are flagging. Throw in a big dance number quick'.
But that's what Broadway is all about.
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Review - 42nd Street - Drury Lane Theatre 2017